By Douglas Anele
I wish to reiterate the point made earlier that assessing a human being from the moral point of view is not an easy task, and anyone intending to do so must be sincere irrespective of the common hypocritical practice of over-eulogising the dead, particularly if the deceased person was powerful and rich. In this connection, if the moral or integrity quotient of Chief M.K.O. Abiola is looked at critically beyond the self-serving sentimentalism of many prominent proselytisers of June 12, a consistent streak of Machiavellism can be discerned in his business dealings, political praxis and close affiliation with the military.
I have already alluded to the fact that he built his business and financial empire through patronage from his friends in the topmost echelons of the army whose mediocre leadership exacerbated most of the problems we are facing today. Worse still, he actually supported military coups both financially and ideologically. Chief Abiola’s confidant and ultimate betrayer, retired Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, confirmed that Abiola was involved in the coups against Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. In Babangida’s own words, “He did. He said so. Of course, he was also very good in trying to mould the thinking of the media. We relied on him a lot for that. So there was both the media support and the financial support.” Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Femi Falana, and others fond of hyperbolising the late politician as “a hero of democracy” fail to reckon with the fact that his Concord Newspapers regularly published pro-military reports and editorial materials that challenged publications like Newswatch which criticised Babangida’s military dictatorship.
An instance of Abiola’s egocentric closeness to his military friends was in 1992 when he asked the editor of Concord to apologise to Gen. Babangida over a factual article that criticised the military government. The editor refused and quit his job in protest. Thus, in my calculus, Chief Abiola, despite the grave injustice of the annulment, was not a hero of democracy. A genuine hero of democracy should be one who consistently engages in activities that promote democratic culture and institutions and, more significantly, takes a principled stand despite the risks against anti-democratic forces especially coups and repressive regimes, not someone who supports dictators simply because he is benefiting from the system and begins to complain bitterly and seek sympathy from people when his military friends turn against him.
Another point of interest is that a sizeable percentage of Nigerians that voted in the June 12 election did so as an indirect vote of no confidence in the military. This position was corroborated by Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti when he bluntly argued that “Before the election, there was no difference between Abiola, the military, Babangida. One viewed him as part of the problems of this country. But we had a running battle with Babangida, and he just had to go. The military had to go.”
The hyperbole that Chief Abiola was a hero of democracy is peddled largely by those who benefited so much from his unsurpassed philanthropy and, yes paradoxically, from his botched presidential ambition. For it is clear, given what has transpired since the presidential election was cancelled twenty-five years ago, that some of the chameleonic pro-democracy activists and politicians carrying June 12 on their heads benefitted financially from the late politician and are unhappy that they have lost a source of financial succour, whereas others profited either directly or indirectly as a result of Babangida’s annulment of the election. Keep in mind that a handful of prominent Yoruba that urged Chief Abiola to insist on his mandate probably feel somewhat guilty because their advice might have encouraged him to reject the conditional release offered by late Gen. Sani Abacha.
For such people, official posthumous recognition of Chief Abiola as the hero of democracy and June as a defining moment in Nigeria’s democratic experience provides some kind of catharsis by lessening the feeling of guilt resulting from the tragic outcome of Abiola’s incarceration. In addition, their seemingly altruistic attitude to June 12 may not really be due to strong belief that Abiola would be a good President or to genuine commitment to democracy and justice; probably, it is about desire to enjoy whatever benefit – psychological and financial – that might accrue from being identified publicly as a vocal defender of Chief Abiola and June 12.
But why did Gen. Babangida and his cohorts annul the election, especially considering his friendship with Abiola together with all the human and material resources spent on it? Various answers ranging from the ridiculous to the plausible have been given to this question. On the ridiculous side is Sule Lamido’s recent explanation that it was because the military owed Abiola N45 billion and wanted to avoid paying the debt. Now, if indeed the federal government owed Chief Abiola and he was sworn in as President, does it mean he would order the Central Bank of Nigeria to pay him just like that without due process? In any case, debt can be renegotiated, and given Abiola’s philanthropic disposition, he might have written off part of it – if actually he was owed so much. Again, the reasons (or, more precisely, excuses) Babangida gave for the annulment were not new: aside from unfavourable court judgements, electoral malpractices of all kinds, including falsification of results and inducement of voters and electoral officials with money by desperate politicians have been recurrent features of our elections, and June 12 was not an exception.
Therefore the question arises: in the case of the 1993 presidential election, were the malpractices radioactive enough to fatally affect its outcome and credibility? To be candid, the answer is No, because Abiola was so popular nationwide that it would have been an extraordinary upset for his opponent, the little known businessman from Kano, Bashir Tofa, to win the election. It must be mentioned in passing that the almost universal praise for the June 12 election was made possible by the modified open ballot system and the overwhelming odds in favour of Chief Abiola, which were confirmed by the results NEC had announced before the cancellation. In my view, former Director Centre for Democratic Studies (CDS), late Professor Omo Omoruyi, in his provocative book, The Tale of June 12, provides a more convincing explanation for the annulment.
According to him, a segment of the northern establishment irrevocably committed to the ideology of Fulani domination of Nigeria as enunciated by Sir Ahmadu Bello and Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, led by former Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, not only pressurised Babangida to discontinue the transition programme, it also mobilised northern senior military officers – Gen. Sani Abacha, Lt. Gen Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, Brig. David Mark among others – to annul the election. Although Chief Abiola was a muslim, for Alhaji Dasuki and his fellow caliphate colonialists he was too rich and well-connected such that they cannot manipulate him if he became President. Second, even if Gen. Babangida was sincere in his political transition programme (which is doubtful because of his incessant undemocratic meddling in the process and his hubristic statement that “we have not chosen, and we have not sought to choose, those that will succeed us.
We have only decided on those who would not”) he wanted to compensate Abacha for risking his life to get him (Babangida) into office in 1983 and 1985. A point often ignored is the reason why Chief Francis Arthur Nzeribe used the legal process to truncate the June 12 election. In an article entitled “Arthur Nzeribe: Celebrating the Nostradamus of Nigeria’s Politiccs @ 79,” Collins Ughalaa reports that after Chief Abiola had emerged as the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Chief Nzeribe led a group of Igbo leaders to discuss with Abiola and ascertain the status of Ndigbo in the expected new dispensation. Abiola reportedly told the Igbo delegation that “Igbo votes are inconsequential to his emergence as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” If Ughalaa’s account is true, Chief Abiola’s unreasonable disdainful remarks about Igbo votes apparently motivated Chief Nzeribe to connive with anti-Abiola elements in government to scuttle the June 12 presidential election. It was his group, the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), that filed a suit at an Abuja high court asking NEC not to conduct the election. On June 10, 1993, Justice Bassey Ikpeme, granted ABN’s prayers.
To be continued